An essay by Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men.
My father doesn’t remember that he’s been in this nursing home before: following a surgery four months ago, when his stomach muscles had been cut through and he was too weak to stand up from a wheelchair to transfer to the toilet. That was July, when he wet himself while sitting in the wheelchair, and since he couldn’t stand up but weighs 70 pounds more than I do, it took me nearly 45 minutes to get him changed into fresh sweatpants and off the soiled chair onto the couch. My mother, who is 81 and frail anyway, was of no assistance given that she was sporting a gargantuan neck brace, having broken her neck the week before. My mother used to be 5’2” but is now something like 4’10”, and something in her tragically bruised, swollen, and braced appearance called to mind the black comedy of a Tim Conway sketch on the old Carol Burnett Show. I know he used to do a shuffling old guy, but did he maybe once wear a neck brace, too? If he did, my parents—then in their comfortable middle-age—would have been howling with laughter at the television. My mother would have been younger than I am now, my father in his fifties, but strong enough to throw me in the air and catch me, my partner in crime for sledding and playgrounds. They would have had no idea the jaws of Satire were coming for them, too.
My father is in the nursing home this time because he fell five times over a two-day period. Three of the times, my mother ended up calling the nearby fire department begging for assistance to get him up. The third time she did this, on Christmas Day, they almost refused, but ended up taking pity on her. My father was in my second-floor apartment at the time. It had taken four adults to get him up the stairs, from where he lives on the first floor, because he hadn’t been to our apartment in months and wanted to come for Christmas. My husband, his father, my college girlfriend and I pulled, lifted, and dragged him up the stairs, maneuvering his legs like he was a heavy sandbag dummy. How we actually accomplished this, in retrospect, is beyond me. Clearly, it was an idiotic idea. Once at our house, my father had to rest his head in his arms for nearly an hour. When he finally began participating in the conversation, he was less lucid than usual. He told my father-in-law and his new wife about his recent hospital stay, when, according to my father, trucks kept backing into his room and immigrant workers unloaded illicit goods into secret supply closets. Sometimes they unloaded women, with whom they “made it” right in front of my father. My father, in this recent hospital stay, was on something like the 9th floor. Even were the hospital engaged in illegal activities out of some B-action flick, it would present a problem to get a truck up the elevator to the 9th floor of the building. In his defense, my father was on copious amounts of morphine at the time of these original hallucinations. Here in our apartment on Christmas Day, his story remained the same, no morphine involved.
We managed to get my father into our apartment, but even with six other adults on the premises, we couldn’t get him out. His legs wouldn’t hold him at all. Our stairway was too narrow for my husband and his dad to walk three-across, with my father suspended between them. My father is too frail and in too much pain to be carried roughly by the arms and legs or something, like a football hero hoisted on his teammates’ shoulders. Nobody knew what to do. We tried, on and off, repeatedly, to get him down the stairs. What goes up must come down. My father wasn’t coming down. Finally, my mother called her buddies at the firehouse.
“You cannot,” I told my mother, “keep treating the firefighters like your personal assistants.” I half-expected her to fight me on this. My mother, a deeply generous person who in my youth commonly set people up on dates, got them jobs, and helped them fill out convoluted paperwork they didn’t understand, has become, these past few years, the sort of old lady who tells other people to get out of their chairs because that’s where she wants to sit. Some days she calls us a dozen times to run downstairs and perform menial tasks like screwing in light bulbs, locating hearing aids, and programing alarm clocks. It seemed entirely possible to me that she might believe an entire local fire department full of strapping, nice-looking men, should be her collective bitch. But instead my mother just shook her head like somebody at the end of her rope and muttered, “I know, I know.”
After my father was finally out of the house, my father-in-law, who used to be a pastoral counselor, sat my husband and me down for what seemed to be an intervention. He urged us to accept that the time had come to put my father into a home and to talk to my mother and make her understand the same. My husband and I were too tired to be very active participants in this discussion meant to preserve our own sanity. We muttered, much like my mother, things like “I know.” Before my father-in-law was even finished talking, our phone was ringing and my mother’s name was being announced by caller ID. My father had fallen again.
Four months ago, when my father went into the nursing home, he was there less than a week. He got some physical therapy, became proficient at transferring to the toilet again, moved out of his wheelchair back to his walker, and was home again doing his Tim Conway shuffling impersonation. The whole thing was barely a blip. There was the night he wept on the phone to my mother asking, “Tell me the truth, am I ever coming home?” but since we all knew he was coming home, his fears otherwise could be treated like one of his many delusional beliefs, such as there being a nest of mice under his sofa, of whose nonexistence he cannot be convinced no matter how many times my husband takes the sofa apart for him, or how many times his nephew, an extermination expert, assures him there are no rodents in the house. Yep, mice nesting in the sofa, Dad. Yep, we’ve just chucked you here forever to rot, Dad. “Of course you’re coming home,” we told him. And he did, in less than a week—we were good for our word. “Home” lasted four months. What now?
The night my mother broke her neck was a comedy of errors. My father was screaming in pain from what would turn out to be an obstructed bowel, but when my husband offered to take him to the ER, he fussed, saying he didn’t want to be stuck there waiting all night. I was recently out of the hospital myself, after a bout of E. coli that was resistant to all but two antibiotics, one of which I was dangerously allergic to, and the other of which made me throw up. I’d been put on enough anti-nausea medication to keep down the barf-antibiotic and was making a slow recovery, but in all truth, I’d never been so sick in my life, even when I had double pneumonia during my ninth month of pregnancy. I’d dwelled for several days on that fevered, incoherent precipice where it is entirely comprehensible how a person can “slip away” and barely notice it, much less care—when the world has gotten blurry and far away and all that exists is the pain in your own curled-up body and the guttural animal moans coming from your mouth, and all attempts at personal dignity like repeating the phrase stop moaning stop moaning over and over again inside your head does nothing to impact what your vocal chords are doing. An ER was no place for me, in these first good days following my recovery, but my husband’s generosity and good will towards my parents would make those firefighters look like heartless assholes, so my dad’s ER trip was covered. He didn’t want to go, though. Fair enough. He is in his nineties and it’s at that point where really it’s his call. My husband and I went back to bed, with instructions to call us if he changed his mind. My mother, though, didn’t want to bother us so late. She called the paramedics instead, and when they arrived, as she rushed out the door to meet them, she fell over the threshold of our door and cracked her neck right in front of them, so that they had to take both her and my father away in the ambulance together.
When my boss and good friend, Tod, tells this story, in his version I’m still in the throes of E. coli, and upon hearing my parents hollering on the front porch, I dash downstairs to see what all the commotion is about, and promptly shit my pants in front of the paramedics, so they need to take me away too. Never mind that my E. coli manifested as a kidney infection, not diarrhea, or that even if I had, in some nightmare hellscape only a writer like Tod could dream up, shat my pants for an audience, there would be little need to take me to the hospital as a result. The fact is, while it was not the literal truth, Tod’s version of the story is more than just a joke, but what writers often refer to as the “emotional truth.”
Two years ago almost to the day, one of my closest girlfriends dropped dead of a pulmonary embolism, while getting dressed for work. Nearly one year ago, another friend lost her toddler to Tay-Sachs after watching him decline for two years. A family of four, from the block I grew up on, has seen every member afflicted with cancer: The mother died just in time to avoid witnessing her husband and daughter both diagnosed at Stage IV. My father always said, “Getting old’s a kick in the ass, sweetheart,” but of course we all know that living to be ninety-two is like the sick prize behind Door Number Three, when you’re actually the last man standing onstage after the other contestants have perished behind the other gaping doors. It turns out that life is a kick in the ass, and we all want desperately to live it anyway, and for the moments of glory and transcendence we have to pay the piper if we’re dealt a wildly fortunate enough hand to afford the tariff. Every day, tens of thousands of people who aren’t ready slide away into the gap, but my father’s screaming at the ceiling, “Jesus Christ, why can’t I die already?” doesn’t do him any more good than all the prayers offered on Facebook did for my friend’s dying son. It’s no wonder the Buddhists say the root of all suffering is desire. But what is a life without desire? I am equal to a tree. I don’t want to be equal to a fucking tree.
Since 2006—the same year my youngest child was born—my mother has had a heart attack, a stroke, a couple of angioplasties, a bleed to the brain, diverticulitis with a temporary colostomy bag, several blood clots, a leg broken in three places, a knee replacement, pneumonia, a three-month stay in a nursing home, been diagnosed with diabetes, and broken her neck, in addition to suffering from severe osteoarthritis. This doesn’t include the falls or pains that required ER visits without amounting to much. My father, who has temporal arteritis and spinal stenosis and an ulcer and severe peripheral neuropathy and suffers from clinical depression with occasional psychotic episodes, also has broken his pelvis, had pneumonia, and had two blockages in his colon, while also growing incontinent, deaf, and senile in the way that we claim he is not senile because he can still remember who we all are, but where apparently he has no recollection of ever having been in a nursing home he lived in four months prior. Sometimes he hallucinates people in addition to the mice, usually loitering on the front porch but occasionally in his room, with menacing intentions. The fact is that this collected list of maladies is only scratching the surface. When my mother reads this on the internet—as she reads everything I write—she will remind me of 47 conditions and trials she and my father have suffered, and she will be right, and if I feel like I’m trapped in a hamster’s wheel of exhaustion and dread, imagine how they feel.
My father-in-law who wanted us to face the facts and pack my father off to a home isn’t some emotionless jerk. He nursed his wife, who had been an alcoholic for decades and was no picnic to live with even when she was healthy, through four years of cancer and held her in his arms the night she died. He’s worked with dying people in hospitals and knows more about the approach of that shadow than I ever hope to. But of course my father-in-law is also only seventy-two years old. Although I’m still (though barely) young enough that that sounds pretty old to me, the fact is that when you’re seventy-two and your sick and difficult wife of many years dies, and you are done grieving, you can find yourself dating and getting remarried and going on cruises and accidentally leaving racy blue bras in your son’s basement guest suite after the two of you have visited. You can have jubilant discussions about female orgasms as though you are eighteen again. My father is ninety-two. There are no more blue bras or orgasms in his future. He rarely traveled even when he was younger because he was too afraid to fly, but the fact that that is his responsibility, not mine, does little to alleviate this sense of encroaching shadow, the stone slowly covering the tomb.
My mom rushing out to meet the paramedics and cracking her own neck has gone beyond a Tim Conway skit and is veering straight into Saturday Night Live territory. If anyone needed a cautionary tale about growing old, my parents would be it.
I’m an only child. So there’s that.
Today, my husband went to hook up a DVD for my father at the nursing home. The Dean Martin videos we bought him for Christmas, Seinfeld—they will be my father’s company for now. They’ll keep giving him physical therapy for a while and see what happens. Maybe it will stick, and he will be home again for another few months, another year. Maybe something else will get him before his legs fail him yet again. If the PT doesn’t have any effect, eventually they will stop administering it, and my father will be moved to the permanent residential floor instead of the rehab unit.
The nursing home is only a mile and a half away, and I work from home, so I will drive my mother to visit my father every day, for however long he’s there, which I realize is something not every family can manage. My mother, who didn’t know how to drive, didn’t manage it when her mother was in a home. Some people live out of state from their children and see them a couple of times a year. But none of that logic holds sway when I think about the fact that my maternal grandmother, in the last year of her life at a nursing home, had taken to cuddling stuffed animals and calling them her “babies,” out of what must have been not just a regression in her intellectual faculties but a crushing loneliness.
When I was in the hospital with E. coli, I didn’t care much whether I lived or died, but I cared about getting out of the hospital. I sobbed in desperation that they had to let me go home, until I terrified my husband. It would be fair to say that I could see the shadow of the stone closing over my tomb and I wanted that tomb to be my own bed. But it turned out I just had the over-active imagination of a writer. It turns out my tomb is still empty, though thanks to what my parents have taught me without meaning to, I cannot quite forget that if I cheat Death long enough, then Satire is coming for me, too. It turns out that, unlike my father, I am a person who gets on the plane anyway, even if it takes enough Xanax to sedate an elephant. It turns out that there are still racy bras and orgasms in my future, though those things too come with an awareness of the shadow. My father asks when he is coming home and it turns out that even when you see mice and illegal trucks and intruders on the porch, your paranoia doesn’t mean something isn’t out to get you, and all I can say this time is, “I don’t know.”
I’m still here.
Gina Frangello is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), which has been a book club selection for Nylon magazine, the Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown; Slut Lullabies, and My Sister’s Continent. She is the Sunday editor for The Rumpus and the fiction editor for The Nervous Breakdown, and is on faculty at UCR-Palm Desert's low residency MFA program in Creative Writing. The longtime Executive Editor of Other Voices magazine and Other Voices Books, she now runs Other Voices Queretaro (www.othervoicesqueretaro.com), an international writing program in the Central Highlands of Mexico. She can be found at www.ginafrangello.com